Right Speech

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The eight-fold path and its relationship to the precepts.

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Having it to see and listen to, to remember and accept, I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagata's words. Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Zen Center. I'd like to talk this morning about right speech, which is generally the fourth of the eightfold path that the Buddha laid out. And this path is the path of finding freedom,

[01:04]

the path of living a sane, useful, courageous life. And as Blanche Tsang pointed out to me this morning, there's a jukai, a lay ordination ceremony here this afternoon in which some people will be taking the precepts, and that three of the precepts are concerned directly with this topic of right speech. I wanted to, as a way of framing how to talk about right speech, I wanted to present two different koans, or stories, or public cases. One is a very traditional Zen koan that many of you have probably heard of, and one is a koan that I suspect that none of you have heard of as a koan since I've made it up.

[02:08]

But you may have heard of it as a common expression, which I don't know if I'm initiating or not. Maybe I am initiating into the world of koanship. The traditional koan, and again I'm wanting to frame this all in the subject of right speech, the koan is, a monk asked Uman, what is the teaching of an entire lifetime? What is the teaching of an entire lifetime? And Uman replied, an appropriate response. What is the teaching of an entire lifetime? Uman replied, an appropriate response. And then the second koan is, what do you get when you squeeze an orange? And the answer is obvious, you get orange juice. So, do I need to say any more about either of these?

[03:15]

And what I love about both of these koans is I think how well they work together. So, what is the teaching of an entire lifetime? An appropriate response is a tremendous impetus to be able to respond appropriately. It has the feeling that you can learn, that you can really learn, that you can change, that you can through, on the one hand it's saying that this is a lifetime of work, that this is not something that you ever can rest in, this is a lifetime endeavor. But it's the lifetime endeavor to be able to respond appropriately, I would say authentically, in each situation.

[04:26]

I find myself, I feel like I've come out of the closet recently, and I've been more and more taking Zen practice into the world of business. And I find that one of the first things that I need to do is define what I mean by Zen. And I found that I generally say that my definition of Zen practice is the practice of developing a responsive and flexible mind and keeping your heart open. So, developing a responsive and flexible mind and keeping your heart open. And this, I think, is a lifetime practice. And this is what, you know, Uman's reflection, Uman's guidance about right speech is that developing the ability to respond appropriately is the practice,

[05:30]

is the teaching of an entire lifetime. And then moving over to when you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice. Has this feeling of that whatever is inside of you, that's what will come out. Whoever it is you are most deeply, that is what you will say, and that is how you will respond. That it's not, Buddha's practice, Zen practice, it's not about learning. These are the ten ways that you should respond in these situations. That the thrust is to work on yourself, to work on you as a particular orange. So that in any situation, when squeezed, what will come out is the kind of orange juice that you want to come out.

[06:31]

Not that yucky, that yucky, stale orange juice, but that fresh, organic orange juice. That it's having an intention, having an intention of the kind of person that you want to be, the kinds of things that you want to say, that you want to respond in a way that is fresh and open and appropriate. And again, so I'm bouncing back and forth between these two koans, an appropriate response. And this reminds me a lot of what a chant that's chanted here every morning, the Heart Sutra, which points to, you know, it says things like, you know, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no old age and death.

[07:31]

But then it says, and also no extinction of them. So it's kind of, it's a little bit, it's a little bit mind-boggling what that means. So I'm trying to, I'm trying to frame this to make this, my intention is to make what feels like these very complicated ideas much more accessible and usable. And I find in some way each of these koans are quite wonderful and simple. What is the teaching of an entire lifetime? An appropriate response. And what do you get when you squeeze an orange, orange juice? And I, so right speech is both. Something that we can really learn through our zazen practice, through our study practice,

[08:32]

through working with teachers, that we have the ability, we have the ability to learn, to respond authentically, appropriately in each situation. And at the same time, we have the ability to transform ourselves, to become the type of orange that we most aspire to become. So I want to maybe unpack a little of this and talk about right speech. The Buddha spoke about right speech, and he said there were four different aspects to right speech. The first is being loyal to the truth.

[09:34]

And so this basically means telling the truth. And of course this is not always so easy. So being loyal to the truth and paying attention to the truth means really becoming so familiar with what is your intention. What are you seeing? I saw recently, and this was actually a business presentation about telling the truth, and it was a presentation that had a picture of a ladder, and it was called the ladder of inference. Somewhere I actually wrote notes on this, but I think I can basically remember. So this ladder of inference showed that down on the bottom is the data.

[10:43]

It's as though you have a video camera watching the world, watching what's happening. Then the next step up the ladder is the data that you select. In fact, I saw a statistic on this the other day. I think it said that in any moment of time, I think the number that I saw was 40 million. 40 million pieces of data that our senses are able to take in. In any moment, 40 million pieces of data. And our minds have the ability to actually acknowledge about 40 of those. So what happens to the other 39 million? These are, again, this feels like to me, this is part of the orange.

[11:45]

All of those things that we're taking in are who we are. So getting back to this ladder of inference. So first, the bottom rung of the ladder is just the raw data. Next up is what we select, are the 40 pieces that we decide to see. Next up is the meaning, the sort of meaning that we decide to give, what the context is about these pieces of data. Then next up are the assumptions and beliefs we make about these various meanings. And then at the top of the ladder is what we decide to say, what we actually say. So there's this huge process that happens in our speech between the situation and all of the things that happen in between,

[12:46]

and then what we decide to say. So this makes this being loyal to the truth and actually telling the truth becomes a whole different kind of challenge. So suddenly it becomes the teaching, the work of an entire lifetime to know ourselves intimately enough so that we're not fooling ourselves. We're not being fooled by the data that we pick and by what we decide to say. And again, so many different layers of possibilities here. One question, I mean one of the things that I think tremendously affects this right speech is the question that I would pose, what false beliefs do you have about yourself?

[13:49]

What false beliefs do you have about yourself? And I think most of us have a variety of false beliefs about ourselves, about our own competence, our own power, our own abilities. Some of us may, and these false beliefs may be different in different situations. We may think in some situations that we're more competent or more powerful or more connected than we actually are. And in other situations we may have the opposite. We may have very much the opposite kind of false belief about ourselves and our own place in the world. I think an example that I think of this in terms of being loyal to the truth and right speech, there's a fairly high business executive that I've been working with

[14:56]

in the role of coach, and he was kind of complaining and whining in a way to me about the decisions that are being made above him, that the boss keeps making these decisions for the company, and in fact this particular person described to me that he feels like he's in the back of a taxi and it's out of control, that he has no say about where this taxi is going. And what's fascinating in this situation is when I have conversations with his boss, his boss says, I wish this person would speak up. I wish this person would express his own views and truth. And he's always, could you please help this person? He's always feeling, he's always kind of whining at meetings and not expressing himself clearly.

[15:58]

And so this is a case where this, this is an example of a, none of us ever do this, right? This is an example of a person who has, you know, when I begin to work with him, I can see that he has this belief, in fact as I began to work with him, the belief that he had was that he couldn't ask for what he wants, that asking for what he wants is not okay. And it was really interesting to be, you know, working with him in this, you know, this was in this business environment on this subject of where did he get this idea that it was not okay to ask for what he wants. And to see how much over and over again this colored his speech. And I said something to him like, I said, you know, when we're, when we're babies,

[17:01]

when we're born, we're all pretty much experts as babies at asking for what we want. We just completely, you know, when we're in pain and need something, we cry. When we're happy, we laugh. When we want something from our mothers, we ask for it. And that, but we're all, you know, we're all raised by imperfect human beings and somehow we are pretty quickly taught in a way to not ask for what we want in various ways. And as I was describing this to this person, I could see tears started rolling down his eyes. And he looked at me and said, you know, I'm teaching my children to not ask for what they want. And so this is a, this is a particularly wonderful one, I think, for this subject of right speech and the practice of Zen.

[18:05]

Because I think, I think sometimes people may interpret Zen practice as learning to not ask for what you want. Because that there's a way in which, you know, there's something, there's a, there's a sense of austerity. There's a sense in, I mean, in Zazen practice, it's completely, Zazen practice is completely being, opening yourself to whatever comes up. And, and things come up that it may not be, it may not be appropriate to respond to, right? So a lot of, a lot of Zazen practice is learning to not respond to a lot of different things. But I'm, I'm kind of putting forth here that an appropriate response is not as simple as it might seem, right? If you, if you are, some people have the opposite problem.

[19:07]

They're always asking for what they want. So there's no, there's no easy answer here to this being loyal, being loyal to the truth. What it, the answer is to develop deep, deep listening practice, deep, deep listening practice to yourself and, and to others. The second, the second suggestion of the Buddha, right, so the first is being loyal to the truth. The second is not creating harm, right? So the, the Buddha says that the second guideline in the practice of right speech is to, is to have speech that does not create harm. So this is a really interesting one, right, about even going back to this example I gave about asking for what you want.

[20:13]

So sometimes, sometimes asking for what you want can create harm. Sometimes not asking for what you want might be a way of, of harming yourself. So there's no, there's no, there's no answer key to this. It is, I think one of the, one of the practices that I want to encourage in, in right speech is the practice of engagement. The practice of, of authentically and fully engaging, engaging with yourself and engaging with, with other people. In fact, there's a, someone, one of my mentors recently taught me a, what he called, he called this cooperative decision making, cooperative decision making. So I would suggest to look into yourself and see on a scale, if you had to make a scale of, on one side is that you pretty much do everything yourself.

[21:22]

And on the other side is that you are always cooperating. You're always getting feedback from other people about decisions. Where, where on that continuum do you tend to fall? And I was surprised, I was really surprised that when I really looked at it for myself, that I, I was way down in the making decisions by myself. That when I, particularly when I was, when I was squeezed, right, so me as an orange, that I had a real tendency to think that I really needed to do this by myself. That that was, that was, I think, kind of a, a false belief that I've learned. And I've been, I've been really experimenting with when I have a decision to make, to reach out to friends and family. You know, I've, you know, even with my, this, this weekend is my, my 25th wedding anniversary.

[22:31]

And it's amazing how, after 25 years, how little I feel like I know, I know my wife. And how little I feel that she knows me. And this is pretty, actually pretty wonderful, how boring it would be, right, if we thought that we, that we knew each other. But this issue, like this is, there's so many things that I feel like I'm, I'm exploring and learning about myself, like this issue of cooperative decision making. You know, another, another interesting area in this, well maybe I'll go on to number three, right. So first is being loyal to the truth. Second is not creating harm. Third is not exaggerating, right, the practice of not exaggerating. And again, this is, this is pretty difficult, this is pretty difficult stuff.

[23:34]

This is really a lifetime practice. I was thinking in terms of my own, in terms of my own life, you know, for many, for many years, I was leading, I started and led a publishing company. And it was a very difficult business that had many, many ups and downs. And I, if I look back, I think that I was often maybe exaggerating how well things were going. That, that in some way I felt that it was, it was my job to always be portraying how good things were. And that I was always trying to get people's energy up. In fact, there's, and I think, I think many, many company leaders, many visionaries, many entrepreneurs have this, this kind of, this kind of tendency.

[24:42]

And I remember in, in my business I was experimenting with this practice of right speech. And when I noticed that I was exaggerating, I decided to not do that. And for a while I found I went too far the other way. I started painting, painting too bleak a picture, you know, like, like what, what is the, what is the truth here of how, of how this business is really doing. And, and I realized there, there really, there really was no, there really is no truth to how a business is doing. There's no truth, there's no one truth to how your life is. Now, this doesn't mean that you should ignore, you should ignore difficulties, right? If you have a, if you have a friend, if you have a friend who's having real problems with some kind of addiction or anger or difficulty, exaggerating would be to not be looking into the truth of what's really happening.

[25:47]

The fourth, the fourth guideline of the Buddha about right speech is relieving suffering. Right, so speech that relieves suffering. And this is, this is very, very powerful, I think, idea about right speech. How is it that we could have speech that relieves suffering? I was also just imagining, imagine if we had a government that followed these rules about right speech. Being loyal to the truth, not creating harm, not exaggerating, and relieving suffering. I think these are just such powerful, powerful way to live our lives. One of the things about, if we look at our speech, almost, almost everything that we say in our speech has, there's, there's three different components, or at least there's many ways to talk about it, about this,

[26:56]

but three components of our speech. There's the content, there's the emotion, and then there's our own identity. And most of the time, again, I think, I think if we look at it, almost, almost all of our attention is aimed at the content of our speech, right? There's so much, so much, so much about any kind of discussion, negotiation, agreement. It's almost all very much aimed around this idea of content, about what is being said. And, and yet, if we start to pay attention, there's almost always an emotion piece. There's almost always how, how are we feeling? How are we actually feeling about it? How is the person that we're talking to feeling in this conversation? And then often even, often looming in the background, even really, really driving the conversation,

[27:58]

is our own, our own sense of identity. And by identity, I mean, do we, you know, this is, this is tying back to this idea, what are the, what are the beliefs that we have about ourselves, right? Are we, are we, do we think that, is our identity as being a good practitioner? A good, you know, caretaker? Are we someone who's competent? Are we someone who's fierce? Are we someone who is able to think quickly on our feet? And, and so often in, in conversation, this sense of our own identity is often what's, what's driving this sense of when we as an orange are squeezed, this is what's, what's coming out. This is what's coming out. So I think the, really the, the practice of right speech, at the heart of it,

[29:00]

is the practice of deep, deep listening. Deep, deep listening to ourselves and to others. And to, to really look, to really look at what are these beliefs we have? What are this, what are these, what are our feelings? What are the identities that we, that we have that so often are, are just beneath the surface but then can surprise us and come out in our speech? Yeah, I think one of the things that I want to, so I want to encourage, I want to encourage all of us to engage with this practice of, of right speech.

[30:02]

This being loyal to the truth, not creating harm, not exaggerating, and relieving suffering. And I think one of the things to realize within this, there's, there's another piece to this, which is that you will make mistakes, right? That, that, in fact I was thinking, I was thinking of a, I know I've talked a couple times about my love of improvisation. I've been, I've been taking improv classes now for a couple years. Again, you know, as a way to terrorize myself even more than I generally feel, feel terrorized. And I had the, I had the wonderful privilege of taking an improv class with Keith Johnston, who was, who was here I think not so long ago. And he probably, one of the things that I, that Keith taught me

[31:04]

and that I keep having to remind myself of, which he talks about in improv, but I think it really works well in, in rights, in this practice of right speech as well. He said that in improv, the secret is to not always try and look good, right? That you need to, you need to be experimenting. You need to be pushing beyond your boundaries. And that it's okay, it's okay to look foolish. It's really okay to look foolish. And in fact, he said in improv, people are not paying you to look good. They're paying you to look foolish. But they're not paying you to look foolish and then feel bad about yourself. What they're really paying you for is to look foolish and feel good about yourself. And I think, so this is, this is I think in order to really practice right speech, you need to be able to, to see what comes out and be able to be willing to make mistakes and feel good about it.

[32:04]

Also, I think it's important to recognize that our intentions are complex. If we really, if we really look at ourselves, our own intentions are very complex. So we should give ourselves a little bit of space about this practice of right speech and seeing the complexity of our intentions. The third thing that I think is really useful in the practice of right speech is to realize that in any problem, in any difficulty, probably you are part of the problem. That you are probably part of the problem. Because there is no objective truth and this idea of appropriate response and it's not a bad starting point to look at how you, what is your contribution to the difficulty and problem that you may be having with someone else.

[33:11]

And the last point that I think I'd make about right speech is the recognition that, this is a wonderful quote by Suzuki Roshi in which he says, you are perfect just as you are. You are perfect just as you are. And you can use a little improvement. And we all, we all of course tend to most, you know, all of us as human beings, we seem to be wired to mostly hearing the improvement part. It's much harder for us to let in that you are perfect just as you are. And I think to practice with what is the teaching of an entire lifetime, an appropriate response is in a way to trust that you are perfect just as you are and that also that when you squeeze an orange you will get orange juice

[34:19]

to trust that inside, inside of you is that you are perfect just as you are. This is that you are Buddha nature. Everything about you is Buddha nature, is perfect. And I think I want to read something, Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, there's a chapter here called Communication in which he talks a little bit about, I'm just going to read a short piece about what Suzuki Roshi has to say about right speech. To understand reality as a direct experience is the reason we practice Zazen and the reason we study Buddhism. Through the study of Buddhism you will understand your human nature, your intellectual faculty, and the truth present in human activity. And you can take this human nature of yours into consideration when you seek to understand reality.

[35:24]

When you listen to someone you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions. You should just listen, just observe what her or his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with her or him and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. It is difficult to have good communication between parents and children. I would say this applies to not only parents and children but almost all relationships. It is difficult to have good communication between parents and children because parents always have their own intentions. Their intentions are nearly always good, but the way they speak or the way they express themselves is often not so free.

[36:30]

It is usually too one-sided and not realistic. We each have our own way of expressing ourselves and it is difficult to change the way according to the circumstances. If parents can manage to express themselves in various ways according to each situation, there will be no danger in the education of their children. This, however, is rather difficult. Even a Zen teacher has his own way. Thank you. Please practice with an appropriate response and notice the wonderful orange juice that you are. Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

[37:24]